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‘Now, I’m Unemployed’: How Coronavirus Killed Off the Capitol Hill Internship

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Jordan Muller (@jordanmuller18) | Twitter

They thought they were getting their foot in the door for a career in politics. Now, their internships have abruptly ended — and their ambitions are on hold.

Congress’ frenzied effort to respond to the coronavirus crisis has been one of the most furious sessions of lawmaking in history. Just days after a congressional staffer tested positive for the virus, the House passed a bipartisan coronavirus response bill securing food aid, free access to testing and extended paid time off for vulnerable Americans. On the other side of the Capitol building, senators and their aides remained at work deep into the night this week, negotiating the specifics of the $2 trillion economic rescue package they passed unanimously late Wednesday night — and which the House is expected to vote on as early as Friday morning.

Noticeably absent from the hubbub? Congressional interns, whose semesters on the Hill have ended abruptly in response to the coronavirus.

For thousands of students, the coronavirus has disrupted the usual flow of college life, forcing students from their dorms, leading school administrators to cancel graduation ceremonies, and driving professors to their laptops to wrap up their classes via video conference. But for those students who had lined up internships in Washington this semester, efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus have disrupted or outright canceled what those interns had hoped would be a foot in the door for a post-collegiate job in politics.

“I’m pretty much in limbo,” said Wayne A. Rodriquez Jr., an American University student who interned in Rep. Jim Himes’ office this semesteruntil two weeks ago, when his internship abruptly ended due to coronavirus fears. “I don’t really know where to go from here, because I was supposed to carry on, and now, I’m unemployed.”

Unlike their colleagues in staff jobs, who are federal employees, interns are totally discretionary — each office hires its own — even as they are subject to many of the same centralized rules that apply to staffers. Similarly, it’s left to each individual congressional office how to handle coronavirus — whether that meant a premature end to internships, a work-from-home arrangement, or something else entirely. So, almost at random, as some of their offices swung into furious action and some went into hibernation, interns found themselves on the outside.

While some congressional interns have been forced to work from home, others have been furloughed or had their program cut completely. Those who are out of work join the swelling ranks of Americans who have lost their jobs in recent days, and whose career prospects remain uncertain as the economy tumbles and businesses shut down.

By March 12, the day after a Senate staffer tested positive for the coronavirus, some congressional offices had begun ordering their staff to work remotely. For some interns, whose programs are managed by individual offices, that marked an unceremonious end to their short semester on the Hill.

“[That] was my last day, and I was only in [the office] for like two hours,” said one congressional intern, who, like most interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press and feared that doing so could hurt their career prospects. “I didn’t even say goodbye to anyone.”

For young politicos, congressional internships are something of a rite of passage — the first rung of the ladder in a career in government and politics. Each semester, hundreds of college students flock to congressional offices to answer phone calls and emails, give tours to constituents, draft press releases, research legislation and schedule appointments. Many of those tasks are impossible to do remotely, and even among those interns who were able to retain their positions, it’s impossible to access the secure congressional computers and networks necessary to do many of their usual daily tasks.

“To go from working eight or nine hours a day to doing two or three hours of work, if that, is pretty difficult,” said one House intern, who’s working remotely and still getting paid. “I’m used to doing stuff all day, and now I’m doing nothing.”

Another House intern told POLITICO that he’s been out of work for a week and a half, since his member’s office began working from home. He’s still receiving a monthly $500 stipend, but can’t access his House email account remotely and hasn’t been assigned any work. In the meantime, he’s waiting out the crisis at his mom’s house in Maryland, and preparing to apply for other jobs in D.C.

Capitol Hill, long known for its close quarters where members and staff mingle collegially as a constant stream of visitors pass through, is seen as particularly vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Members must vote in person, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges Americans to gather in groups of no larger than 10. The average age of a House member is nearly 59; for Senators, it’s 63. Two House members and one senator have already tested positive for the virus, with dozens more in self-quarantine.

Congressional offices often hire interns from the pool of students in Washington-area colleges. But those schools, like most across the country, have shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some of the region’s largest colleges, including Georgetown, George Washington University, Howard University and American University, are shuttering their dorms and shifting classes online — leaving students scrambling to figure out their housing situations, move out of the dorms and wrap up their internships.

One student at GW whose House internship ended two weeks ago, said that even if their member’s office returns to in-person work, they won’t be able to live in D.C. to finish their internship: They’ve already moved all their belongings out of the dorm, flown home, and the college will not let students move back.

Another student, a Senate intern who is now working remotely, took the semester off from college to intern on Capitol Hill. He had been living in dorm-style housing with six other congressional interns who are now unable to work from their members’ offices. After a few days cooped up with his roommates, unable to get work done — or even to seek a reprieve by taking his laptop to the neighborhood Starbucks — he packed up his belongings and moved out of the dorm to stay with relatives in the area.

“I’m hoping that this isn’t the end of my internship,” he said.“I guess it really makes me value the ability to be able to do in-person work experience a lot more.”

This article was originally published at Politico on March 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Muller is an editorial intern at Politico Magazine.


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House of Representatives has a sexual harassment policy — but it’s designed to protect the harasser

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House lawmakers met on Capitol Hill Tuesday to review the chamber’s sexual harassment policies. This review process comes on the heels of sweeping allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment among some of the nation’s most powerful institutions and industries — including the U.S. Congress.

In her opening statement, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) told the story of a young female staffer who was subject to sexual harassment from a sitting Congressman.

“This member asked a staffer to bring them over some materials to their residence. And a young staffer — it was a young woman — went there and was greeted with a member in a towel. It was a male, who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself,” Comstock said. “She left, and then she quit her job.”

Over 1,500 former Hill staffers have signed a letter calling for a formal review of the “inadequate” congressional sexual harassment policies in the wake of such incidents.

Lawmakers like Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) have previously shared their own stories of sexual harassment from their years working as aides on the Hill.

Speier — who shared a story on Twitter back in October about a congressional chief of staff who had once “stuck his tongue down her throat” — testified before the panel on Tuesday and disclosed there are at least two sitting members of Congress, one Democrat and one Republican, who have engaged in sexual harassment. She stated some victims have admitted to having their “private parts grabbed on the House floor” by members. Speier didn’t disclose the names of the members and said these cases have not yet been reviewed.

The reason for that is likely that the process for reporting sexual harassment in the House is so extensive and geared towards protecting the harasser.

As Speier noted in the hearing, successful claims against a House employee require the victim to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Any settlements made to the victim are taxpayer-funded and never disclosed, the identity of the accused also remains anonymous. Additionally, interns and fellows do not have access to this process, leaving them with nowhere to turn should they be sexually harassed by a member of Congress.

Currently, there is no required sexual harassment training in the House of Representatives, but rather, individual offices may have their staff attend training sessions offered by the Office of Compliance. The head of that department said during testimony on Tuesday that they have made multiple recommendations to Congress to mandate sexual harassment training for all employees since 2010.

Just last week, the Senate passed a resolution that required mandatory sexual harassment training for all members, including staffers, interns, and the lawmakers themselves.

Following the Committee on House Administration hearing on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a statement calling for mandatory sexual harassment training in the chamber.

“Today’s hearing was another important step in our efforts to combat sexual harassment and ensure a safe workplace. I want to especially thank my colleagues who shared their stories. Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution. As we work with the Administration, Ethics, and Rules committees to implement mandatory training, we will continue our review to make sure the right policies and resources are in place to prevent and report harassment.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant and social media coordinator at NPR, where she covered presidential conflicts of interest and ethics coverage. Before moving to Washington, she was an intern reporter at NPR member stations WLRN in Miami and WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. She holds a B.A in Editing, Writing, and Media with a minor in political science from Florida State University

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Missouri Lawmakers Propose Ending Sexual Harassment By Telling Interns To Dress Modestly

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tara-culp-resslerSome Missouri state lawmakers have a controversial idea for preventing future sexual harassment cases in the legislature: Imposing a new “modest” dress code for teenage interns.

State representatives are trying to figure out how to respond to several incidences of harassment among their ranks. In July, State Sen. Paul LeVota (D) resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed two interns. And in May, House Speaker John Diehl (R) — perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in the state — stepped down after the Kansas City Star reported that he exchanged sexually explicit text messages with a 19-year-old intern.

In response, lawmakers are attempting to make changes to the current internship program to provide more oversight. And at least two state legislators — Reps. Bill Kidd (R) and Nick King (R) — have thrown their weight behind an intern dress code.

“We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” King wrote in an email to the rest of his colleagues after Kidd made the initial suggestion. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”

The idea was met with derision from Kidd and King’s Democratic colleagues, as well as roundly mocked on Twitter. Critics pointed out that changing interns’ dress codes won’t get at the fundamental issue of lawmakers potentially harassing their staff or colleagues. Plus, they argued there isn’t anything inherently distracting about interns’ bodies that should prevent their bosses from being able to go about doing their jobs.

“If my plaid jacket or the sight of a woman’s bare knee distracts you from your legislative duties, I would look for other work,” Rep. Jeremy LaFaver (D) responded.

Missouri’s legislature isn’t the first to wade into this fight. Last year, Montana lawmakers madenational headlines for approving new dress code guidelines that stipulated “leggings are not considered dress pants” and women should be “sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.” Female politicians in the state objected, saying the new rules created “this ability to scrutinize women” and were “totally sexist and bizarre and unnecessary.”

The argument over gender-based dress codes has also spread to middle schools and high schools across the country, as female students push back against the assumption that the way they dressmay distract their male peers from concentrating in class. Critics say this approach to dress codesreinforces the idea that women’s bodies are inherently tempting to men and that women are responsible for covering themselves up. The implicit message, then, is that it’s women’s job to change their behavior to prevent men from committing sexual crimes.

“Maybe voters should insist on a special requirement for men applying to be a Missouri lawmaker,” Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah wrote on Tuesday. “It could rule out any men who consider themselves to be lascivious, salacious and simply indecent.”

This blog originally appeared on ThinkProgress.org on August 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission

Tara Culp-Ressler is a Senior Editor at ThinkProgress. She was previously a Health Editor, Health Reporter, and Editorial Assistant for the site. Before joining the ThinkProgress team, Tara worked at several progressive religious nonprofits, including Faith in Public Life, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Interfaith Voices. Tara graduated from American University and is originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

 


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